Saturday, July 9, 2016

The Machine Stops

I’ve killed that goblin a hundred thousand times across a dozen games over more than a decade, and I can scarcely muster the energy to read about how it is being re-skinned as a different shade of orc

Yesterday brought the surprising news that Turbine, one of the longest-established and most influential of MMO developers, had made the final decision to turn its back on the genre it helped to found and form.

Turbine's first MMORPG, Asheron's Call, was one of the original "Big Three" along with Ultima Online and EverQuest. Some MMOs are bigger than others, though, and even back in October of 1999, when I was sitting in front of my 14" CRT screen at work, searching the World-Wide Web via NetScape for information about these scary, mysterious "online" role-playing games, Asheron's Call, even though it was just about to launch the following month, barely registered.

Back in those days of shortage I tried to play every MMO I could find. Unlike Lineage, which I have still never played even now, Asheron's Call wasn't hard to access. I just went to one of the three video game shops on my local high street and picked the enormous cardboard box off the shelf.

I didn't take to Asheron's Call. By the time I tried it I'd been playing EQ for a while and I'd also tried UO and would have taken either in preference to the strangely loose, unmoored experience I found in Turbine's flagship. I wasn't alone. While AC had its dedicated supporters and was commercially successful enough for Turbine to follow it with an ill-fated sequel, like Pete Wylie in The Crucial Three, the Asheron's Call franchise was destined to disappear behind its peers into the rear-view mirror of history.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, given my lack of enthusiasm for the original, I didn't pay much attention to AC2 at the time. When it went dark in 2005 I assumed I'd missed my chance but I finally got around to kicking its wheels when Turbine made the surprising decision to resurrect it as a F2P title almost a decade later. I didn't enjoy that experience a great deal more than I did the first one.

Turbine's third MMO looked a lot more interesting. In 2006 they launched the first MMO officially based on the D&D licence, Dungeons and Dragons Online. Given that I'd originally decided to give MMORPGs a try on the understanding that they offered something akin to a 24/7, on-demand automated D&D session, this looked promising.

Mrs Bhagpuss and I both joined the DDO beta and, like many, perhaps most of the testers, came away disappointed. What with the extreme instancing, the lack of an open world, the almost complete reliance on grouping and the unfamiliar choice of the Eberron campaign setting, our few forays into Turbine's first licensed MMO were not happy times.

We declined to buy DDO when it launched in 2006 but we did give it a second glance three years later, when Turbine made their industry-shaking decision to make the game Free to Play. By then DDO had been largely re-structured to be a much more open game with a fair-to-middling solo experience. I dabbled for a while and enjoyed it in parts.

DDO wasn't the first Western F2P MMO. That was Anarchy Online, which opened the doors to the great unsubbed in 2005. Somehow Funcom's innovative move slipped by largely unnoticed while Turbine's dropping of the subscription required to play DDO was seen even at the time as a harbinger of storms to come.

And come those storms did when Turbine played the F2P card for the second time. Despite the very rocky start for their first licensed outing, just a year after DDO's launch Turbine took a second run at someone else's IP and again it was a big one. Indeed, it's not unreasonable to suggest that in Dungeons and Dragons and Lord of the Rings Turbine took on the two biggest IPs the genre knew. For a relatively small and specialist player they were certainly thinking big.

Lord of the Rings Online launched in 2007, which was several years after the global success of Peter Jackson's trilogy of movies. Perhaps that was coming a little late to the party. The world may have been a little Tolkiened out by then. Like SW:toR a few years on, LotRO wasn't as big a deal as the power of the name might have led investors to expect. 

It certainly wasn't a failure. Critics loved it and it sold respectably if not spectacularly. It took Mrs Bhagpuss and I a while to get around to trying it but when we did we found a solid and enjoyable MMO wrapped around a very convincing iteration of Middle Earth. We played for several months, eventually tapping out in the mid-40s. 

Mrs Bhagpuss would probably have gone on playing longer but one Sunday morning I had one run-in too many with the roleplaying police and decided life was too short to argue the toss over authenticity with people who apparently believed Hobbits were real and Middle Earth was historical fact. There was also the issue of the combat, which alone among MMOs gave me seriously painful RSI. 

In the years since I've dropped back in a few times.The world is always a joy to explore. In 2010 dropping in became something you could do on a whim as Turbine again abandoned the subscription model. 

If taking DDO F2P had shaken the industry the move to free for LotRO rocked it on its foundations, not least because of the apparent financial windfall it meant for Turbine. The reported threefold increase in revenue six months down the line was almost certainly the spur the industry needed to move en masse away from the decade-old subscription model towards the plethora of hybrid and F2P options that have dominated the genre ever since.

That turned out to be Turbine's last throw of the dice as far as shaping the course of the genre went. LotRO was Turbine's final MMO. Since then, other than a long drawn-out and ultimately futile attempt to enter the congested MOBA market with yet a third Licensed IP, the DC Comics' based Infinite Crisis, Turbine seems to have done little more then curate, fitfully, their one money-earning product, LotRO.

The license granted by the Tolkien Estate to run that title expires next year. There's an ongoing legal case that apparently means no-one from Turbine can talk about what happens next, even if they wanted to, which they most certainly don't.

There's been a deal of speculation about what that might mean for LotRO but yesterday's announcement that the company would be "transitioning into a free-to-play, mobile development studio" would be impossible to interpret as anything other than a hard blow to the prospect of a happy outcome for the many thousands still enjoying their journeys through Middle Earth.

Massively OP managed to prise a clarification out of Turbine's owners, Warner Bros, to the effect that "The Lord of the Rings Online and Dungeons and Dragons online games will continue to operate as they do now." Be reassured if you will.

So, dark days for Elves, Hobbits and Men and a shadow over the genre. Many, like Zubon, while feeling angered or saddened by the ignominious fall of a once-respected pillar of a once-great community, will see it as another brick in the wall that separates them from their past. Undoubtedly the future for the genre is not the future we thought it would be back when the sun first rose over The Shire. 

Yet these are not the last days. For the while light still shines from the East, as the relative success this year of Blade and Soul, Black Desert and the ongoing renaissance of Final Fantasy XIV attest. As Zubon observes, old MMOs roll on, playing to their own, niche audiences, oblivious of trend. For those of us still excited to see what colors the next lot of orcs might come in there is always likely to be someone standing ready with the paintbrush.

If you want to enjoy what Turbine brought to the Tolkein table, and it was a very considerable contribution to the canon, then as Wilhelm advises "Play the games while you have the chance, as the future is more uncertain than usual and nobody is likely to make a game like LOTRO again". If, on the other hand, it's the MMORPG genre itself that fires your imagination and makes your clicking finger itch then lift your head and look up.

MMOs are coming to mobile platforms and to consoles. VR, when it settles down and beds in, looks to be made for the form. The last two decades laid down the foundation for the future of an imaginary experience that will be with us for as long as imagination itself lasts. MMOs aren't going anywhere. They're going everywhere.

Who knows, maybe Turbine will even make some of them. For your phone.


  1. Well, it's interesting, none of the famous, early MMO-makers are still around, at least in their original form.

    SOE (EQ): recently became DBG
    Origin (UO): disbanded by EA early 2000's.
    Turbine (AC): Now mobile-only
    Mythic (DAoC): Shut down by EA recently
    Funcom (AO): Exited MMORPG field after relative failure of TSW

    Yet, all those games are still running, in some form or another.

    It appears that the only studios that have survived in something close to their original form are those in the slightly later second wave: Blizzard and Anet.

    - Simon

    1. Yes, it is interesting, especially because several of the main developers themselves are still making MMOs very much in the same mold as the ones that made them famous - Richard Garriott, Brad McQuaid, Mark Jacobs. It seems players like to go on playing the same MMOs and developers like to go on making them but the businesses that support it all not surprisingly feel their investment could be more profitably directed elsewhere.

      I also found it interesting that not only did I have to go to Wikipedia to find out the names of the "star" developers behind Turbine's MMOs but when I did I found I'd never heard of them...


Wider Two Column Modification courtesy of The Blogger Guide